Missoula City Council OKs zoning overlay to preserve University District’s character

The University District sits tucked under a canopy of trees in the foreground outside downtown Missoula. (Missoula Current file photo)

On a 6-4 vote Monday, Missoula City Council members approved a zoning overlay for the University District intended to “preserve and enhance the character” of the historic neighborhood by insisting that new construction and redevelopment be “compatible with the scale, orientation and setting of original buildings.”

Council members Michelle Cares, John DiBari, Julie Merritt and Jesse Ramos cast the “no” votes. Councilwomen Heidi West and Julie Armstrong were absent.

Although opposed by about half of the citizens who commented at the nighttime public hearing, the neighborhood-initiated overlay was overwhelmingly supported in several surveys conducted over the past two years.

Ward 3 Councilwoman Gwen Jones championed the ordinance through the years of meetings, emails, phone calls, debates and eventually more civil discourse.

Neighborhood residents approached Jones after two smaller homes were demolished across from Bonner Park and replaced with one large, two-story home with a rooftop terrace and a taller elevator shaft.

Several commenters referenced that home in their comments Monday night, still angry about its size and design.

Neighborhood resident Michael Mann said the overlay is “less effective than many of us hoped. It may not really answer the concerns of residents who answered the surveys.”

Mann cited an old doctrine in English common law as a good proviso. “You weren’t allowed to build a house that blocks the sunshine of your neighbor. It’s a question of neighborliness.”

The overlay specifically prohibits the “tear down two, build one” scenario that has occurred several times in recent years, including the much-debated home across from Bonner Park, said Tom Zavitz, a senior planner with Development Services.

Jones, however, said she believed most residents in the neighborhood moved past that issue “about 20 months ago” and began looking for ideas that would preserve the historic feel of the University District and its big setbacks, wide boulevards and densely beautiful trees.

The neighborhood owes its beauty to its earliest residents, who at the turn of the 20thcentury came together and intentionally created a “beautiful built environment,” Jones said.

“What sets the University District apart is the planning that happened 120 years ago to create a structure for a beautiful built environment,” she said.

And so grew the neighborhood from north to south over that century, until recent years.

“In the last few years, there has been dramatic change like this neighborhood hasn’t seen since the 1800s,” Jones said. “To me, that change is the reason we need to fine-tune our plan for this neighborhood – to reflect the changing times.”

As approved, the zoning overlay has these main provisions:

  • Parcels may not be combined or expanded to create a parcel that exceeds 65 feet in width or exceed 8,450 square feet in area. (No more demolishing two homes on two lots to build one large home stretching across both lots.)
  • On a corner parcel, the height limit of the street-side façade is defined by an inwardly sloping 45-degree angle plane that begins at a horizontal line directly above the side 15-foot setback line.
  • On a corner parcel, no uninterrupted (unmodulated) length of the street-side façade shall exceed 40 feet in length.
  • On a corner parcel, new and redevelopment, including additions on corner parcels over 80 feet in width, are subject to the front and street-side setbacks of the existing primary structure.
  • For development within the University Historic District, the applicant and/or the applicant’s designer shall meet with the city’s historic preservation officer prior to submittal of a building permit. In cases involving demolition, the consultation shall occur prior to demolition permit approval. The meeting educates homeowners and developers about the value of preserving the historic character of the University District Neighborhood with architecture sensitive to the mass and proportions of existing structures.

Jones said city planners and neighborhood residents consciously took a “light touch” in designing the overlay, keeping the rules simple, clear and flexible.

“You shouldn’t have to hire an architect” to meet the requirements of the overlay, she said. In fact, it does not include any restrictions on or guidelines for a home’s design.

The notion, Jones emphasized, is to preserve the “experience” of walking through the University neighborhood. “It feels like walking through a park.”

Jeff Birkby, a member of the University District leadership team, said Jones and city planners “have really threaded the needle to try to find the compromise and try to find a way to address the needs of University Area residents who overwhelmingly support this, but recognizing there may be a time when we want to expand this into other neighborhoods.”

Birkby called the zoning overlay “a thoughtful, well-crafted and well-designed approach to recognize the character of the University District without adding burdensome regulations.”

“The proposed overlay is very gentle,” he said. “It doesn’t restrict housing styles or architectural freedom or the choice of building materials. It simply addresses site mass, height and setbacks.

“There is lots of freedom for residents to continue to build as they wish.”

Neighborhood resident Jesse Johnson said he “certainly wouldn’t want to legislative against wealth,” so thought hard about his objections to the new, larger homes.

“They push the private boundaries right up to the limit,” he said. “When you push the boundaries of your private domicile up to the limit of the setback, you’re encroaching upon what every other home would make as public space for all of us to share,” he said. “It’s not nice, in my opinion.”

Molly Blakely said the beauty and historic integrity of the University District must be protected, and in fact should be included on the University of Montana’s prospective-student tours.

“As a Missoulian, I cherish the beauty and the historical significance of the University neighborhood,” Blakely said. “It is just pure charm.”

Not all, of course, spoke in favor of the restrictions, including Ward 4 Councilman Jesse Ramos, who said the overlay was an attempt to “protect the rich from the ultra-rich.”

Councilman John DiBari, who also represents Ward 4 and also voted “no” Monday night, complained that the neighborhood residents focused on what they’re against rather than what they’re for.

The University District has “a lot of character,” but not all of it is historic, DiBari said. Homes in the area are old, new, big, small, represent all architectural styles, and are built with a considerable variety of setbacks.

If he had to define the character of the neighborhood, DiBari said, he would call it “diverse” and “non-conforming” because of that eclectic mix.

And that’s good, he said.

The zoning overlay “selects one thing” from that diversity and labels it as the neighborhood’s defining character: “big houses on big lots with big setbacks,” DiBari said.

Finally, he said, the overlay runs counter to the city’s effort to create more affordable housing and more equity for all its residents.

“Everything we are doing in this community is going in the right direction, but this is going in the wrong direction,” DiBari said.